Anthropologist Carlos Fausto on Amazonian Poetics and Aesthetics

Nov. 21, 2019

On Thursday, November 7th, the Brazil LAB hosted Carlos Fausto, a leading Brazilian cultural and visual anthropologist and Professor at the Brazil’s Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, with Rob Nixon, Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Family Professor in the Humanities and the Environment, as discussant. Fausto delivered the talk ‘The Poetics of an Amazonian World: Flutes, Spells, Necklaces, and Manioc’ to a standing room only. The anthropologist has been conducting fieldwork among Amazonian indigenous peoples since the mid-1980s, and has written and published extensively on warfare, shamanism, ritual, art, mythology, and political authority. Fausto’s keynote opened the two-day the workshop ‘Amazonian Poetics’ (Poéticas Amazônicas) held from Friday November 8th to Saturday November 9th, gathering scholars in the humanities and social sciences from Princeton and Brazil, along with the renowned Brazilian indigenous artists Jaider Esbell and Denilson Baniwa.
Fausto's talk was an exploratory elaboration of an ‘amazonian aesthetics’ energized by the question of how Amazonian people perceive and engage with the world. In the dense and multi-layered socio-ecological zone that is the Amazon the anthropologist, according to Fausto, risks flattening and misrepresenting the minutae of everyday life (‘seeing nothing’ or seeing everything ‘through a mass of greens and browns’, a form of spatial and aesthetic ‘monotony’). Confronted with the scales and striations of Amazonian lifeworlds the anthropologist, Fausto argued, ‘needs new eyes’ to be able to account for the ‘aesthetics of small intervals’  in which ‘transformations, variations, repetitions and minimum increments’ in ecology, food-production, folklore, divination and cultural production constitute and reveal shifting cartographies of change. By attending to the accretion of ‘minimal difference’ in the ritual productions of Amazonian communities in the Upper Xingu river-basin, Fausto made a case for documenting and recording deep forms of Amazonian ‘creativity’ while acknowledging the imperative that especially in the case of Amazonian communities ‘the way they change is different from the way we conceptualize change.’ 
In his response to Fausto’s presentation, Rob Nixon emphasized the need to analyze the role and relationship of time, velocity and scale in the study of Amazonian spatial and sensorial poetics. Drawing on an idea of ‘culture as the changing same’, Nixon asked, ‘at what point are there processes that make evident configurations of change in culture?’. Nixon also raised the issue of ecological urgency tied to the notion that we are (especially in the case of the Amazon) ‘living in a time of accelerated ecological change’. How must an attentiveness to ‘variations through minimal difference’ be read and reconciled with the ‘accelerated time’ that processes of exposure to external factors are enforcing on the Amazon?  
The rich discussion that followed included graduate students and faculty from Princeton and the Museu nacional, indigenous artists, and a range of other interdisciplinary collaborators and participants of the Brazil LAB. Fausto concluded that indigenous communities in the Amazon ‘are a product of long time’ (and here again we must exercise caution to realize the particularities of each group rather than reify them into a single category). While they therefore possess distinctive and distinguishing characteristics they are open to the world. It is in the nature of this encounter between lifeworlds inside and outside the Amazon that there exists a power dynamic which, according to the anthropologist, we must make legible and confront. In a sense then, Fausto’s presentation highlighted ‘our incomprehension with regards to the Amazonian lifeworld as a form of reversing the power dynamic and using that to search for an Amazonian aesthetics and poetics’.

Amazonian Poetics was organized by Fausto, together with Pedro Meira Monteiro, Arthur W. Marks ’19 Professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and Marilia Librandi, Lecturer in Spanish and Portuguese. The workshop was co-sponsored by PIIRS, the Social Anthropology Program of Museu Nacional/UFRJ, the Princeton Environmental Institute, the Program in Latin American Studies, the Humanities Council, the University Center for Human Values, the Department of Anthropology, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese

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